I have been meaning to blog about my final days at NUCHR for a really really really really long time now, but haven’t gotten around to it because of school and laziness. Yesterday I had my first day of Intro to Peace Studies (I may have been 15 minutes late because I “closed my eyes” for 35 minutes after my alarm went off) and felt inspired to revisit this and finally write about my experience.

Peace, my professor said, in his naturally gentle and creaking voice, is the one of the least explored areas of sociology. Like political science (a field I consider myself more familiar with), peace is something everyone desires and something everyone recognizes is important and difficult to achieve, but is at the same time unwilling and/or unable to devote the time, energy, and resources necessary to achieve it.

At NUCHR, I simultaneously felt an overwhelming sense of optimism because I was meeting so many experienced peacemakers with wonderful ideas who have made great strides in their work (as well as the hopeful wide-eyed twenty-somethings who want a make difference) along with a sense of daunting difficulty and frustration. As much as these people have dedicated themselves to their careers (almost all were single or divorced) the overall message from each one was that no one knows how to make peace correctly and, if they do, they don’t know how to make it lasting. Everyone has their own theories and (unfortunately) their own agendas, which often conflict and aren’t coordinated.

Tom Crick from the Carter Center spoke about the need for peace models like the Camp David Accords or the Dayton Agreement: put people in a room together and bang their heads together make them communicate with one another with a mediator present to keep them from throwing punches the negotiation on track. He stressed the need to include EVERYONE in negotiations (aka: the Taliban) if peace is to have a chance of succeeding. Tom worked in Liberia where he spoke about something I have heard a few times before–the demand for peace. Often conflict ridden communities want the absence of violence and are content to settle for this baseline peace if it means they have food, shelter, and no longer fear for their physical safety. What comes afterwards–and what people love to champion–such as human rights and democracy are secondary concerns that local populations can do without if it means potentially stirring up discontent. Two questions become relevant: 1) If people are informed about the benefits of human and political rights and about legitimate justice systems through some type of civic education, would they care? 2) Who are we (‘we’ referring to the general western ‘we’, but particularly to a post-9/11 United States) to educate people about what their lives are missing?

A very interesting man named Mark Nelson (from Stanford) spoke next and presented an interesting solution to the common criticism that peace is something completely intangible that cannot be seen. He argued that by using the internet–particularly modern social media–we can measure peace and generate peace movements like never before. By measuring how many people from India and Pakistan or Israel and Iran are friends on facebook, we can gauge how civil societies actually feel about one another instead of using inflamed and often political rhetoric as a litmus for relations between countries. This type of “peace data” is very new and is opening doors that previously could not be budged. Is this type of connection enough to move people from awareness to collaboration? Is it enough to foster engagement and make people see that not only do they not have to be enemies, but that they can mutually invest in one another and are more useful to each other alive than dead.

The next panel was two women–Chipo Nyambuya and Dove Pressnall–who took very different approaches to post-conflict peace building. Chipo was a state-builder, someone who invested in institutions and organizations. She advocated for the development of legal systems, schools, healthcare, and law enforcement. Dove was a trauma psychiatrist and went to Liberia to see if she could help anyone with the techniques she had developed in the U.S. What she developed with her patients was a self-narrative and worked with them to create the narrative they wanted and to control the way that violence has influenced their narratives, effectively separating their experience from their identity. She wanted to help them change their identity from ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’. I appreciated that she clearly articulated the role an “outsider” can play in these types of situations. 1) Outside perspectives are helpful as long as your efforts are locally informed and driven and you are genuinely curious and respectful of that fact that you will never see the world the way they do and that you can never presume anything about their lives. 2) Solidarity and connection. You may not be able to understand them completely, but part of the human experience is seeking connections to know you are not alone. 3) New technologies and practices. Even though your way–as an educated westerner–may not work for everyone, new technologies may be incredibly useful. Just don’t be presumptuous.

We wrapped up the day by visiting different local peacekeeping sites around Chicago. I went to Ceasefire Little Village, a mentor program designed to minimize and prevent gang violence by having former gang members patrol the neighborhood and act as violence interrupters and mentors to young people in gangs. These people believed in restorative justice, not criminal justice. They, like many, believe the prison system in America is broken and it creates a cycle of targeted violence. Instead, credible messengers like themselves as former gang members, have a greater ability to reach out to youth and prevent violence. We heard countless heartbreaking and inspiring stories from the people we talked to–all of whom had been to prison–about themselves and about the progress they have made in their neighborhood. As a privileged, white female, many of the stories I heard were a little disheartening. The most credible of messengers and the people who can help the most are more often than not the ones who are local to the conflict. I went to bed with a spinning head, wondering if there was a place for someone like me: a young person who gives a damn, but does not have any particular set of characteristics or skills that make me stand out other than my dedication. I’ve come to believe that there are two types of people who can really change the world: the creative ones who have amazing, unique ideas and the ones who have no one special idea or skill, but are willing to devote themselves completely to something. I think I have more potential to be the latter.

Day 3 to be continued…

P.S. Only 6 more coffee mate flavors to go until I have tried them all. This week: cafe mocha.

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